UROP in History - Women Spies in World War II

Wed, 05/15/24
Delaney, Grace and Carolena

Danielle Wirsansky, PhD candidate in History, is directing a UROP project on women spies during World War II. The aim of the project is to analyze primary source materials from the archives to discern differences in the experience of Special Operation Executive agents based on gender.

This is the fourth time that Wirsansky is directing a UROP project on the theme of women spies. She has three students working with her. Delaney, a junior double majoring in Political Science and History with a minor in Communication. Her favorite part of history was turn of the century American history. Grace who is a History major born in West Virginia. And Carolena who is double majoring in International Affairs and Public Health. Her interest in History is more personal than academic.

Wirsansky was a UROP student herself as an undergraduate – back in 2013/ 14. Although she was a Theatre major, she opted to work with Dr. Nathan Stoltzfus on the Rosenstrasse protests in Berlin during WW II. She enjoyed the research aspect so much, that she continued to work for the Rosenstrasse project. That led her to do her master’s degree with Dr. Stoltzfus; her thesis was on the experience of women spies who worked for the British, connecting their experience to that of British women more generally during WW II.  Her PhD dissertation – also with Dr. Stoltzfus - will be a gender analysis of the experience of the Special Operations Executive’s agents, both men and women, focusing on each step of their experience from recruitment to execution.

Wirsansky was in London for the spring semester doing archival research at the Imperial War Museum. Her focus was specifically on their Vera Atkins collection. The IWM holds 14 boxes of material on Atkins and for their second semester the UROP students worked exclusively on this.

How did you find out about UROP?

Delaney: A lot of my friends did it last year, and they spoke really highly of it and thought it was a good experience. As I've done research in the past, I thought it would be cool just to try and do it again. I applied to three different projects, but this was always my top one.

Grace: I saw something about it on History’s Instagram account. People I spoke to in the Humanities enjoyed their experience, so I went ahead and applied. The wait though was agony to see if I got in. I was interested in getting more involved with projects in my major. I also wanted to explore different career paths that I can take with a History degree. I applied to five projects, including the one on the Rosenstrasse.

Carolena: The scholarship notification I got from FSU said that admission to UROP was guaranteed. I looked up what UROP was and when I told my mother she said that being involved in undergraduate research was a big deal especially if I wanted to go to grad school. So, I did it. I applied to quite a few projects both in History and Public Health. I had four or five interviews, but this was always my top choice.

What made you want to choose this project?

Delaney: What I love about history is learning about people that you don't get taught about in history class. Female spies is so dope; it's female empowerment. Their stories are in themselves fascinating, what they have been through. Being actively involved in uncovering their stories drew me immediately.

Grace: I have always been intrigued by women’s history. I was a feminist in high school, and I fell in love with history. When I graduated, my history teacher gave me three books as a graduation gift, and one of those was ‘A Woman of No Importance,’ which is about Virginia Hall, one of the women spies. When I saw this project, I thought, what a strange coincidence.

Carolena: I agree with Delaney about wanting to learn more about people who are generally not so much talked about. I want to work with underrepresented communities, so this is one of my focus areas. On a personal level, I have always liked World War II era spies. My dad bought me all these books on spies, and I have been to the spy museum in Washington, D.C.

What specifically were you working on within the project?

Delaney: We all had the same job. We primarily focused on archival material provided by Danielle dealing with the lives of the women spies in the field and outside of it. We were looking for gender bias in the sources. Each one of us had a slightly different topic. I worked on documents dealing with the Ravensbruck concentration camp, the executions of the women spies who had been moved there.

Additionally, we each did a transcription of an oral source but those turned out to be very difficult and not such a good fit for us.

Grace: Initially, when we started the project, we did some work to become familiar with its content. Danielle had us read a couple of books in the beginning that looked at the topic of women spies from different angles, with more and then less bias. We did literary analysis and noted down on a Google sheet when we found an instance that sounded biased to us. Then we started working on actual primary sources. And after that we did the transcriptions. Mine was really long, and it took so much effort to get it done.

Carolena: The first semester was mostly devoted to the literary analysis of those books. We did that all together. Then the second semester we mostly worked on primary sources. A lot of the primary sources were connected to Vera Atkins, the second in command of F Section. I went through her correspondence. A lot of that had to do with a reunion of all the people involved in F Section. Some of those attending were from women had had been spies during the war, and it was interesting to look into their lives after the war.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

Delaney: I would say the transcription. I work at a lobbying firm, and often my job is to transcribe meetings. I'm very familiar with transcription, but these … they were in different languages, and very tedious. It took a very long time to transcribe a little blurb. The audio file was from a panel with different speakers.

Grace: Agreed, it was tedious. The recordings themselves were not too long, maybe 30 minutes. But the content was hard to follow. My recording was specifically from a panel about the SOE in France. It was from the 1990s and included Vera Atkins. It mentioned French people and places that I was not familiar with. I know who De Gaulle was but others? Not so much. And when they had complete sentences in French, I felt that they had too much faith in their audience. While it was challenging, it was probably a good experience because unless you push yourself there is no room for growth. It was also good insight into what a future job might include.

Carolena: My transcription was also a panel, which I think made it a lot harder because people would just start talking without saying their names. But the hardest thing was off-hand remarks about things that were not directly to do with the SOE. I would spend time researching the places or people they mentioned, and I wasn’t always successful. I kept thinking, please, please, please explain. But they did not.

What sort of archival material were you looking at specifically? 

Delaney: It varied throughout the year. Early on, I got a lot of correspondence between Vera Atkins and the people who used to run the camps during World War II and also former soldiers. This was when Atkins was trying to figure out what happened to the women who had been sent to Ravensbruck.  

Later, most of the letters I looked through had to do with unveiling a memorial in Ravensbruck. That involved a lot of correspondence about what had actually happened to the women at the camp, especially as there were conflicting eyewitness accounts.

Grace: Yes, the material was varied. I saw a lot of depositions. But everything we did had a connection with Vera Atkins. Things that she had worked on. Newspaper clippings, photographs, correspondence. I looked at the material that a journalist had gathered together when she was writing the biography of Vera Atkins. She had donated her research notes and findings to the Imperial War Museum.

Carolena: I agree that in the beginning we had a lot of depositions. The most interesting deposition I had was from someone who was a legal attaché to the SS and whom they quizzed about how things had worked in regard to the women in the camps. He provided insight in the inner workings of the SS. It was interesting if a little terrifying.

The most recent material I worked on was going through RSVP notes for an event which Atkins had kept. I was surprised that she kept RSVPs to an event that had already happened.

What was the most fun part of your work?

Delaney: I'm going to say working with archival material, seeing these things firsthand. For example, holding and reading letters that Vera Atkins had written, or someone had written to her.

Grace: I agree on the archival material, but specifically it was most exciting when you'd find something that was a little treasure. Sometimes there were hand drawn sketches among the documents, that was always exciting, like a map of a camp that Vera had drawn. Sometimes, the people in the documents would argue about what was happening in other places – and I would know the answer because I had seen the records.

Carolena: I also think the archives was the most interesting part. It was a bunch of unknown or not well-known stuff. Finding random things was super cool. And it was interesting reading the testimony of people who were involved in World War II who were denying their involvement, even though others testified that they had. Figuring out what was going on in people’s minds, and how they were dealing with their actions.

Was it difficult to compress your individual projects into a poster board?

Delaney: I would say yes and no because we all did different things, but we had to collaborate on the one posterboard. I think on the board it's broader, so that a person who walks up knowing nothing about it can understand and listen to it. But when we individually present, I know I'm going to talk about Ravensbruck and focus on the things that I know about.

Grace: Yes, I think we all got caught up in the specific little things that we had worked on, and we had to stand back to see that those details might not help with the overall point. So, we tried to make the poster as focused and concise as we could.

Carolena: We focused on the background of the project so that people would understand it. But I was excited to see how people would interact with the poster, what questions they would ask. That will be a good indicator if we did a good job or not.

What advice would you give to other students who might be interested in doing UROP?

Delaney: I would say to do it. It is a really good experience. I think you learn a lot of skills that you can use in a future job. But it is also a time commitment that you need to budget for every week. The stuff we did was really cool, and it is a good thing to put on your resume.

Grace: I would say, you need to do this to see if you actually like doing research. If you can handle the workload on top of other things. Besides working on your project, you also have a seminar to attend a few times a semester, in which you learn about different ways of doing research. You will have assignments for that seminar too. I thought UROP was a great networking opportunity, you get to meet new people, which is super important for first- and second-year students.

Carolena: I would encourage most people to do it. My caution would be that you need to know yourself, if you are able to self-discipline yourself and do things without having an actual grade to work towards as the UROP seminar is a pass/ fail class. But if you think you can, I would encourage people to apply. 

Grace: On another note, I'm applying to do Honors in the Major, and I think this was a really good way to find out if I like doing research. And also, to find out what is research like in the Humanities where you don’t work in a lab. It's definitely a good way to understand what research means for your field.